Blog 122c -Non-Causes of Poverty, Jobs, Welfare Responses


Blog #122c – Non-Causes of Poverty, Jobs, Welfare Responses

Why is there poverty in the United States today?[1] Most anti-poverty policies rely on one or more of four theories about the causes of poverty: the lack of jobs, the shiftlessness of the poor, the changing technological composition of production, or the scarcity of resources to provide for all. None of the four holds up.

We don’t have enough jobs. Not so. “Unless we create more jobs, there will be unemployed and thus poverty,” many believe. But unemployment is low, whatever the weaknesses of its measure, and most poor people are already employed. They already have “jobs,” or at least work, and very often hard work, often part- time, insecure, without benefits, almost always devalued. It is the substandard quality of the jobs we have that undergirds poverty.[2]  Killer jobs, not job killers, are the real problem.

And that so many jobs are substandard is not by accident. Simple economics dictates that employers will always push wages as low as they can: wages to workers are income to employees, but expenses for employers.  Matthew Desmond’s trenchant article[3] provides the figures, and lays out the consequences, in well reasoned and human terms. What’s needed are good jobs, paying living wages, secure over time, organized so as to be manageable along with meeting all the other obligations of complicated lives

They are poor because they are lazy. Not so. “They don’t want to work, or they drink, or are addicted, or mentally ill,” some argue. But, as noted above, most poor are in fact working, but at jobs with less than living wages or unsustainable working conditions Blaming the victims for their poverty will not work

Technological change requires workers with skills the poor don’t have. Yes but. A high school education may be increasingly needed to get a good job, but lack of a high school education is not voluntary for most without it. Getting a good education is not so simple for many, and especially for those that begin poor. Lack of good schools, of health care, of transportation, of housing, of physical security, of social encouragement, all play large roles. There is no evidence that, given the opportunity, poor people are not able to handle work that requires a post-high-school education. The poor may indeed have less education than those better off, but not because they are stupid.

Technological advances should in fact increasingly be able to provide enough for all, so that there would be no such thing as poverty, if they were appropriately socially organized.

There will always be winners and losers. The poor are simply the losers. No longer so. “The poor will always be with us is an old argument. It is increasingly wrong. Our societies are able to produce enough so that no one needs to live without adequate housing, food, clothing, rest, security, or the other things a decent standard of living in a technologically advanced society can produce. The statistics on inequality are clear. Even a modest redistribution from the top 1% would mean that all of the other 99% could live well above poverty levels.

 If none of these four explanations accounts for the widespread existence of poverty today, what does?

Two factors basically explain the existence of poverty today.

First, major real conflicts of material interest underlie poverty.  As pointed out above, simple economics dictates that for-profit businesses will always push wages as low as they can: wages to workers are income to workers, but expenses for for-profit businesses. Thus, poverty benefits powerful economic and political interests, powerful both in establishing economic relations, and in politically establishing governmental policies that further business interests opposing the steps necessary to eliminate poverty.  And,

Second, the necessity of dealing with immediate and critical human problems detracts from confronting these real conflicts, creating an incentive to downplay the existence of these conflicts politically as well as ideologically, even among well-meaning advocates of policies challenging the underlying causes of the conditions whose consequences they seek to ameliorate, so-called anti-poverty and social welfare programs.

So what is to be done to reduce and ultimately eliminate poverty from rich societies such as ours?

 Immediate actions. We have some limited but moderately effective social-mobility programs: minimum wage laws, restrictions on hours of labor and unhealthy working conditions, subsidized health care, unemployment benefits, public financing of elementary education. They need to be adequately and securely funded.[4] They should be championed, expanded, and stripped of any draconian and counterproductive work requirements. But more is needed.

Ultimate goals must be kept on the agenda as ultimately needed, goals such as a real right to housing, to free medical care, to free public education through college, an adequate income should be considered, and seen as obvious governmental functions, just as are police or fire services or streets and highways or sanitation or environmental controls or providing for holding democratic elections or public parks or clean water. So one might consider adopting as ultimate asocial goals for social action the elimination of poverty entirely and the provision of a right to a comfortable standard of living commensurate with what society is already in a position to provide, given a commitment to use it so that its wealth is distributed equitably among all individuals and groups in the society, commensurate with individual and group needs and desires. The even broader goal might be expressed as the just and democratic control of the economy as a whole and in its parts.

Transformational Measures. But to achieve such goals, shorter-term steps also need to be pursued, measures that move in these directions but that do not promise more than are immediately political feasible yet can contribute to meeting long-term goals.. [5] We should not neglect the importance of the poverty fixes we already have. Safety-net programs that help families confront food insecurity, housing unaffordability and unemployment spells lift tens of millions of people above the poverty line each year. By itself, SNAP annually pulls over eight million people out of poverty. According to a 2015 study, without federal tax benefits and transfers, the number of Americans living in deep poverty (half below the poverty threshold) would jump from 5 percent to almost 19 percent.[6]

  1. Improving minimum wage laws. Moving towards the ultimate goal of stablishing a standard of living for all that guarantees not only the necessities of life but at a level consistent with a comfortable and secure standard of living and a level commensurate with the productive capacity of society, appropriately organized to fullfill social needs and enforced well enough to prevent destructive competition- among businesses based on how little they pay their workers.
  2. Strengthening workers’ rights, moving in the direction of fair wages for all, including strengthening requirements for fair labor standards in the work place. Encouraging self- organization workers and poor households along diverse lines needing publii representation..
  3. Expanding the public and non-profits sectors, in the direction of recognizing the benefits of using social contribution as the motivation of provision of goods and services, rather than profit to be made by furnishing them, e.g. in housing, health care, education, recreation, transportation, environmental amenities, creative arts.
  4. Terminating public expenditures whose motivation is economic development and growth for their own sake, and focusing them on their contribution to meeting social goals, including provision of socially desired levels of goods and services. Publicly subsidized job creation as part of and motivated by economic development interests will simply benefit employers unless coupled with living wage and decent working condition requirements. Adding a work requirement to the receipt of social benefits is likewise a painfully ironic was of reducing such benefits to their recipients in a system in which if they do not produce profits for an employer, over and above their wages they will not be hired.[7]
  5. Making the tax system strongly progressive, lower at the bottom, higher at the top, moving towards the broad reduction of inequality and targeting them to the encouragement of socially desirable activities.
  6. Weighing the advantages and disadvantages of imaginatively recasting budget priorities, specifically reducing the military budget, funding anew climate -change-centered civilian conservation corps, increasing foreign aid aimed at alleviating conditions that lead to emigration etc.
  7. Recasting the public thinking about the meaning and values of work, the causes of poverty, the values implicit in alternative approaches to inequality and injustice. [8]

In Matthew Desmond’s eloquent words, “We need a new language for talking about poverty. ‘Nobody who works should be poor,’ we say. That’s not good enough. Nobody in America should be poor, period.”  He’s right.[9]

[1] The official poverty rate is 12.7 percent, based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 estimates. That year, an estimated 43.1 million Americans lived in poverty

 [3] Matthew Desmond, “Americans Want to Believe Jobs Are the Solution to Poverty. They’re Not,” concludes simply: “the able-bodied, poor and idle adult remains a rare creature “Why Work Doesn’t Work Any More,” The New York Times  Magazine, p. 36ff. Available at                             https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/11/magazine/americans-jobs-poverty-homeless.html

[4]

[5] For a further discussion of the concept of transformative measures, see pmarcuse .wordpress.com, blogs 81a-81e, 97, and 99, Towards Transformative Approaches to Unjust Inequality.

[6] Mathew Desmond, op. cit., p. 49.

[7] Mathew Desmond in a factual, tightly argued, and very persuasive article effectively demonstrates the futility of work requirements attached to the receipt of social benefits. Today, 41.7 million laborers — nearly a third of the American work force — earn less than $12 an hour. the New York Times Magazine of September 11, 2018,

[8] Matthew Desmond, op. cit., writes ”No single mother struggling to raise children on her own; no formerly incarcerated man who has served his time; no young heroin user struggling with addiction and pain; no retired bus driver whose pension was squandered; nobody. And if we respect hard work, then we should reward it, instead of deploying this value to shame the poor and justify our unconscionable and growing inequality.”  And Joanna Scuffs, in a rich and provocative article , writes of ”the slipperiness of the term ”work”, from work  as a daily grind into work as “life’s work “oeuvre, art,  the reason you’re here on earth.” The’Linguistic Chamelion” of Work,In These Times, April  2018, [[. 65ff.

[9] Op. cit., p. 9.

Advertisements

Blog #81b: Inequality: What’s the Answer? Economic or Racial? Conservative or Liberal-Clinton?


Blog #81b: What’s the Answer? Economic or Racial? Conservative or Liberal?

The debate on the Democratic side in the United States election campaign has seemed at times to be between  answers addressing, on the one said , economic inequality (held to be Bernie Sanders view) and on the other, racial and ethnic disparities (Black Lives Matter often taken to hold that view, and Hillary Clinton’s frequent emphasis). The answer of course depends on the analysis of the problem. If the suggestion of Blog #81a is accepted, that the key definition of unjust inequality, defined in the economic terms of wealth and income, lies in whether or not it arises from the economic, political, and social relations of exploitation and oppression within the society, then that analysis might be applied as well to the issue of unjust non-economic inequalities between black and white, “native” born and immigrant, men and women, religious majorities and minorities, non-conformists generally.

In fact, relations of exploitation and oppression, economic and non-economic inequality, are historically opposite sides of the same coin. As to “race,” slavery of course combined both oppression with exploitation; the attitudes to immigrants does so as well, if in different legal and social ways. The clear disparities in women’s and men’s wages are linked to patterns of sexist treatment that is both economic  and social/cultural,  and patterns of social behavior , such as are embodied in religious codes as well as sexual and gender-related attitudes, play a role in supporting economic structures  as well.[1]

In looking for answers, then, for concrete policies, programs, strategies to rectify these twin economic and non-economic problems, the key is to understand them as linked, parts of a single pattern, and examine proposed answers with those linkages I mind.  Looking at the details of conservative as opposed to liberal as opposed to radical current answers illustrates the point.

The conservative response is that inequality should not be a concern.. Conservatives essentially see economic inequalities as both inevitable and necessary. They defend quantitative inequality because greater wealth or income is the result of differences in effort or ability, or a reward for innovation and hard work; end inequality, and you take away the incentives for an individual to work hard and use the abilities they have to contribute to prosperity and growth. The poor are poor because they have lesser abilities, and it is only poverty or its threat that makes them enter the labor market at all, where they are needed to do the unskilled work that needs to be done. If the market at any point requires less unskilled work  than there are  unskilled workers, that’s too bad, but charity requires that they not be left to starve to death on the streets, but they should not be helped to such an extent that their incentive to work disappears. Inequality is thus the inevitable accompaniment of different natural capabilities, and enforcing equality unfairly penalizes those with greater capabilities, who deserve to have more than less capable others.

For conservatives economic inequalities are  directly linked to and justified by non-economic inequalities: lesser pay for  women explained by sexist views of their work, lower pay for African-Americans by weaker work habits or value  systems, unconcern for living wages for  immigrants by  a logical market reaction to their greater “willingness ” to accept work undesired by natives. Other non-economic inequalities arise from differences in treatment that are experienced as oppressive and painful by African-Americans , women (both married and unmarried, n different and overlapping ways), LGBT individuals, foreigners speaking other languages as their native tongue, some artists, non-conformity of all sorts, are admittedly unequal in the conservative view, but the difference is explained as a matter of voluntary  choice of life style, and Its solution is simply adaptation by those subject to harm to more dominant patterns of behavior. Those not conforming to middle-class values in their behavior are not entitled to claims for equal treatment, and may be forcibly repressed, through police action and incarceration, if they do not behave.  And all-together, the pressure for life-style conformity, even if leading to obvious unjust inequality, is part of that societal pattern accepted as desirable and functional for society, even if criticized as one-dimensional by others. Dealing with non-economic inequality would necessitate government interference in “private” matters, and that is in principle to be minimized. The answer thus is simply to make the system function smoothly, but not to disturb it by artificially countering inequality.

It is a solution that can be made to sound acceptable to a significant part of the population, and will have substantial resources behind its propagation.

The Liberal response (in the current Democratic debates highlighted by Hillary Clinton) recognizes the existence of economic inequalities of wealth and income, but focuses on non-economic inequalities.

In addressing economic inequalities, its answers are to improve incomes and wealth at the bottom of the scale, leaving the top untouched. The response is based on a social morality which objects to gross inequality that relegates some to living in abject poverty for no fault of their own, and finds the answer in alleviating that poverty. The causes of economic inequality are not dealt with, nor are the benefits of exploitation challenged. The argument is perhaps that there is no reason to object to inequality if no one is hurt by it. If all at the bottom have enough for a decent standard of living, why shouldn’t the rich be richer than they? The answer thus lies in  anti-poverty programs, with a focus on who the poor are, how to help them get ahead with education for jobs and careers, if they are doing their best then to support them with subsidies up to the point where all, regardless of natural capabilities, achieve some minimum  standard of living. Morally the rich should act charitably to help the poor, but the fault that creates poverty lies not in their riches, but in the stars, or in the incapacities of the poor, or in the important economic laws that produce prosperity but inevitably have unequal results for some, with results that should be countered by help from the general funds of society. The goal is not reduce inequality per se, but to put a safety net under the poor, to end poverty. The whole society should agree to such a moral goal, in the Liberal view.

The argument that quantitative inequality is unjust because it is morally unfair to the middle class is a different formulation of this approach, perhaps politically more appealing than a purely moral approach because more people identify as middle class than a poor. But that response develops a line between the middle class and the rest of society, the poor and those who, in non-economic life  style ways, are non-conformists, do not share “middle class values” or patterns of behavior , including, for instance gender relationships.. The concern is that the middle class families are slipping out of the middle and into the bottom, and to help them with governmental support, perhaps low-interest loans to encourage their entrepreneurship, labor laws that prohibit unhealthy working conditions, sick leave, rationalized and partially subsidized health care, and expanded skill-oriented higher education. etc. Conformity to middle class values is demanded of recipients of such benefits, but those not conforming may be helped by carefully moderated measures to come into conformity.[2] The response assumes an essentially normal and inevitable quantitative economic and qualitative non-economic inequality to be natural, and seeks to ameliorate it after it has occurred, in the distribution of its results, rather than dealing with the causes that produce it. Consistent with a Liberal analysis, it addresses the wealth of the top only gingerly, by non-confiscatory taxes on the rich only to the level needed to pay for ameliorative support for the endangered members of the middle class and poor. Answers do not question whether the acquisition of wealth by the rich is a cause of the lesser wealth of the middle and poor. And the taxes on the rich must also be kept moderate, because it is assumed that the rich are needed to provide jobs for the middle and poor, and too high taxes would reduce their incentives to do that.

Thus the Liberal response to inequality is to address it only at the bottom and middle of the distribution of wealth, leaving both the political and the economic structures that have created the inequality at the top modified but essentially intact. But it is a solution that might find consensus support among a large part, if not a majority, of the population.

—————————

This blog is one of a set of five dealing with Unjust Inequality:

Blog #81a: What’s the Problem? Not Just Inequality

Blog #81b: Inequality: What’s the Answer? Economic or Racial? Conservative or Liberal-Clinton?

Blog #81c – From Clinton Liberal to Sanders Progressive Responses

Blog #81d – Inequality: A Radical Response

Blog #81e. – Towards Transformative Approaches to Unjust Inequality.

[1] A whole field of sociology explores these relationships , with the Frankfurt School’s critiques , and particularly Herbert Marcuse’s work, One-Dimensional Man and other writings , being (in my vulnerably objective opinion) prime examples ,.

[2] Even if there is no agreement on what such conformity-inducing measures might be. A recent overview of a dominant paradigm of the 19650’s came from the Moynihan Report of 1965, which found that “Almost One-Fourth of Negro Families are Headed by Females,” “which seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole.” Yet a provocative article by Eduardo Porter in the NYTimes, Wednesday Feb. 3, 2016, pp. B1&7, essentially argues that the problem is basically economic, not marital: better-off single  women have fewer problems than poor ones, and their children do better, but poor married women are no better off than their single sisters. Adding money does more for the children than adding a male (my summary).

Blog #81a: What’s the Problem? Not Just Inequality


WHAT’S THE PROBLEM? NOT JUST INEQUALITY

Inequality today is usually equated with the extent of the gap between the 1% and the 99% that that the Occupy movement brought to public attention, or that Bernie Sanders highlights in properly criticizing the distribution of wealth and income in the United States. But this is a mischievously facile definition of inequality. Some inequalities are in fact fair, and result from differences in talent, physical strength, luck, and commendable effort. Gross disparities are a vivid indicator of a problem, but do not draw attention to its causes, which lie in critical social, economic, and political relationships,. To focus on the gap itself and to address it with remedial measures aimed at narrowing its extent detracts attention from those causes.[i]

 Just and Unjust  Inequality: Why the Difference Matters

Equality and inequality are deceptively simple concepts. In the modern era they came into prominence with the French revolutionary slogan of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité,[ii] where equality meant political and legal equality, equality of “rights,” equality in relation to the state, as it did in the United States  Declaration of Independence’s “All men are created equal” as to “certain inalienable rights.” [iii] Rights to the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of Man Equality did not mean equality in incomes or wealth or in the distribution of goods and services, which were seen as dependent on equality of legal and political rights, Equality in material distribution of material goods was seen as a concomitant of social justice, not its center.

Comparing equality as a goal to justice as a goal[iv]  brings the realization that not all inequality is unjust. Not all differences are unjust. There is natural inequality, of physical and mental capacities: not all humans are of the same height or weight or prowess, not all are the equals of Einstein or Jacki Robinson or Martin Luther King. We consider some inequality in the distribution of wealth and power fair: it may derive from natural inequalities, it may be earned by hard work, or by social contribution, what Piketty calls the common utility, or be justified by different needs. In some cases unjust inequalities may be built on natural or earned “not-unjust ” inequalities, but their extreme extent then built on power, part of their wealth earned, another part not: Donald Trump? Hillary Clinton? Thomas Edison? Jeff Bezoz?  There is a balancing involved. Granted a Hollywood star or tennis champion or skilled artisan deserves to earn more than the average, how much more is just? A tricky question, but the answer can be one produced through democratic processes, and would, for instance, lead to decisions as to how progressive the tax structure should be. Similarly, a person who is ill, or suffering from a disability, or is limited by conditions end his or her control, might be entitled to more governmental support than the average, and again at what levels is an appropriate subject for democratic decision-making, leading to decisions as to the levels of welfare benefits reimbursement for health care expenses, and so forth.[v]

There is thus “just inequality” and “unjust inequality.” How does one generalize the difference?

What Is The Key Difference?

Inequality is unjust,[vi] I propose, if it derives from the exercise of power used for the exploitation or oppression of one person or group by another. The resulting distribution of goods and  services, of wealth and income , the gap between the 1% and 99% is unjust, not because of its size, but because of its origins. What is “just” is then a matter that is socially defined – Rawls’ definition of justice or fairness could be useful, what would be decided by people acting behind a “veil of ignorance” as to their own position.

The results of not-unjust inequalities in the distribution of goods and services can then e countered by appropriate public policies of redistribution of those goods and services, e.g. by taxes or public provision.

But the results of unjust inequalities need to be addressed at their source in the social, political, and economic relations among individuals and groups which skew the distribution of goods and services, and result from the skewed distribution of power.  Acting on the results of just-inequalities can be guided by democratic procedures, debates on over values, the use of reason. Acting on the results of unjust-inequalities necessarily involves dealing with the distribution of power, and durable consensus of those benefiting from unjust inequality with those suffering from it should not be expected, and should not be an aim of public policy.

Justice is a moral formulation for the prevention of unjust inequalities. Politically, dealing with all forms of inequality, just and unjust alike, through redistribution of their results is can be done by consensus reforms, and should be facilitated by democracy. But dealing with the bases for unjust inequalities likely requires more radical politics. This may be the difference between Hilary Clinton’s and Bernie Saunders’ in the political campaigns of the moment.[vii]

The issues around inequality are complex for practice, as well as theoretically challenging; the answers make a significant difference in matters of immediate policy as well as in philosophy and world outlook.

———————-

[i] For striking examples, see my Blog #48 Writing about Inequality, at pmarcuse.wordpress.com.

[ii] The 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of the Right of Man begins with: “art. 1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” [http://www.hrcr.org/docs/frenchdec.html] considers egalite in terms of legal equality and merit-based entry to government (art. 6): [The law] “must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in its eyes, shall be equally eligible to all high offices, public positions and employments, according to their ability, and without other distinction than that of their virtues and talents.”

[iii] “…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.”

[iv] As Susan Fainstein does in The Just City, for example, in a wide-ranging discussion. Fainstein, Susan. 2010. The Just City. Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, P.   36ff.

[v] Rawls definition of justice or fairness as what would be decided by people acting behind a veil of ignorance as to their own position is I believe consistent with this approach.

[vi] Piketty uses a definition, benefitting most those most in need, akin to Rawls’ definition of justice, But he writes that fuller discussion of the meaning of justice is beyond the scope of his tome, and it is well beyond  the scope of this essay.

[vii] This blog is one of a set of five dealing with Unjust Inequality:

Blog #81a: What’s the Problem? Not Just Inequality

Blog #81b: Inequality: What’s the Answer? Economic or Racial? Conservative or Liberal-Clinton?

Blog #81c – From Clinton Liberal to Sanders Progressive Responses

Blog #81d – Inequality: A Radical Response

Blog #81e. – Towards Transformative Approaches to Unjust Inequality.

Blog #80 – Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning: the Good and the Bad


Mandatory Inclusionary Housing: MIH, the Good and the Bad

MIH is an approach to ameliorating housing problems, and it lays an important role in city planning and zoning. It generally permits denser and higher new private development in areas zoned for it, but it requires  developers to set aside a given percentage of the new units for housing affordable  by families of lower income, essentially paid for by the profits of the new market rate housing also allowed. It combines zoning and planning policy with housing policy; both aspects need to be considered in any careful evaluation.

The housing part: A housing system that does not provide adequate decent safe and sanitary housing for all citizens is wrong. It hurts the most vulnerable sections of our society; it is the exact opposite of what Rawls calls the second principle of Justice:[1] it discriminates against those already the least advantaged, those already suffering from hardships in employment, in education, in health care, in finance. And it inevitably overlaps with discrimination on racial and ethnic grounds.

The fact that the effect of discrimination is produced by the market is no excuse for allowing it.[2] Wealth is unequally divided in our society; there is no conceivable moral justification for some acquiring billions and others being homeless; we are rich enough to house everyone, in decent, safe, and sanitary units. Allowing billionaires to play a wildly disproportionate role in politics, and thus in government, in the social decisions that we make through government, permitting them to act in their own self-interest rather than letting government act on behalf of all of us and be guided by a decision-making process that is fully informed and democratic, makes the injustice of a profit-based market housing system even worse.

Mandatory inclusionary zoning can be an effective tool to deal with the injustices of such  a purely market-driven system of producing and allocating housing. I would commend the mayor and HPD for pursing it, and making it an important component of an overall approach to the problem of housing.

But MIH fails if it is distorted to serve as an excuse for segregation and functions by enabling displacement under cover of serving social justice. That’s not a criticism of MIH as such; it’s a criticism of it us without considering it role in the wider task of community–based planning and development. MIH plays this perverse role in two ways:

  1. Who is included in the inclusionary part? If it is a program that makes sure that those earning a million a year are include in every enclave of billionaires, that could be called “inclusionary” too, but not what this is intended to be about by its advocates, and I believe not what the Mayor or HPD intend either. The abstract debate about whether those targeted for inclusion are those at 30% of AMI, or 20%, or 10%, is not quibbling about numbers, it is of the heart of the matter. It calls for thoughtfulness, for a recognition of political realities, for some careful analysis of needs and resources, but it seems clear to me that, given where we are, the lower the income groups served and the higher the proportions required to be included, the better. The perfect may be pragmatically the enemy of the good in political negotiations, but the direction of good public policy must be to move as close to the perfect answer as we can get.
  1. Where and how MIH is used is the second major issue in the program — in addition to the issue of numeric income limits and proportions – and the two are linked. It is a program intended by is advocates to act against discrimination , to help those excluded from decent housing because of their incomes and their jobs, or the lack of jobs, or by their  race or ethnicity or sexual orientation or religions, from a decent housing in a decent environment, those discriminated against by the functioning of the housing market enforced throughout by government, through its courts and judicial system, its environmental regulations and their presence and absence, through  public investments or disinvestment in physical infrastructure  and social  MIH can promote segregation as well  as integration. The devil knows that too.

Segregation is a form of discrimination. It restricts opportunities, inhibits broad diversity and its benefits, defines the opportunities it provides for community solidarity negatively, by indicating what cannot be done, by whom, with whom, rather than enabling a broad social concept of community as embracing the broad range of the society. MIH, if it is not undertaken in a community -sensitive and spatially-planned way, opens the door to the G word, Gentrification. Gentrification, over-simplified, is the displacement of poorer households by better -off ones, worsening the housing of those at the bottom for those closer to the top. The unregulated market will allow  those with the wealth and political resources to take over desirable locations in our cities that have been historically occupied by working class and poor families and turn them into higher income enclaves from which the or  have been expelled. If a MIH proposal is part of a zoning scheme in which gentrification is rationalized by requiring a smattering of those in need of housing to benefit from the displacement of many of their brethren and sisters, it produces that kind of segregation. Rezoning a particular area to allow more housing to be built in such fashion that the net proportion of higher income households is significantly increased in the community displaces families both on the parcels on which it is built and those priced out of the community by the impact of increased land values resulting from the new construction for the richer will further, not reduce, segregation as the net result.

And MIH will have a natural tendency to produce that result if it is not carefully structured to avoid it. The income levels fixed, the proportions allowed, the resulting net totals, the neighborhood effects, the social guidance of the market setting of rents and, the planning social facilities and social investments, re all involved here. The impacts of specific provisions will vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, from community to community, and should be undertaken with the greatest of care and the maximum of community input and decision-making – Rawls’ goals of social justice must be kept  in mind.[1] Diversity, for instance , has specific benefits in itself , in permitting mixing, mutual enrichment, solidarity and mutual support ; but diversifying public housing by introducing higher income household at the expense of those intended to be serve by it, with the result of benefiting higher over low-income families, is not  a just objective of public policy . Likewise with the allocation of public subsidies, using housing vouchers, etc., to facilitate inclusionary occupancy only when it is to the ultimate benefit of its developers and those in less need, is unjust.

MIH may be put forward as a painless no-displacement approach to rezoning empty or grossly technically underutilized land. But again it may be helping solve a housing problem at the cost of increasing segregation and in determining desired zoning and planning goals. The issue is not direct displacement, but secondary displacement: preventing families from moving into an area where they might otherwise find affordable housing and integrated housing by an upzoning that increases housing, specifically land, prices beyond their reach. That process is called secondary displacement, and advances segregation as much, if less visibly than, direct displacement.  Using MIH as part of an upzoning is better than having the upzoning without the MIH, but that’s hardly the only alternative. Good planning would evaluate a range of possibilities. One very promising approach, for instance, is the use of community land trusts or mutual housing associations as owners or decision-making entities of development, making the process of planning and implementation really democratic down to the neighborhood level. Further, the alternatives for any major proposal should be considered in the context of planning for the future of the city as a whole, where future commercial development might best be concentrated — or dispersed – whether the plan promotes or helps overcome the sharp divisions of the city with its internal boundaries of race, income, ethnicity, social status, gender.

In summary: Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, in the context of community-based planning, strengthening inclusionary communities democratically designed by and for those that government justly should serve, has great potential. But it must be carefully designed, both in its own details, incomes to be served, proportions to be reached, and in its broader context, the communities to be served, the planning into which it must be integrated. Depending on its design, it can go badly awry, or be a real instrument for progress in the social good.

*****

The big picture:

In the best case scenario, Mandatory Inclusionary Housing can be a way of redistributing the benefits of the city’s growth  and sky-rocketing land values, which the city as a whole has created, not the individual land owners benefiting from it, , and letting the city’s people and their communities capture some of that increase in value. It does so in a way clearly meeting the very definition of justice, helping those least advantaged and reducing the advantages of their richer cousins.  Communities, and particularly those most need, can capture some of that socially created increases in land values through MIH. It redistributes from the more fully advantaged to the less advantaged, the very definition of justice. In less advantaged communities, MIH can make sure, given adequate, meaningful community control, that benefits and costs are fairly distributed. In more advantages communities. Think how different today’s suburbs or exclusionary enclaves would look if mandatory inclusionary zoning had been in effect when they were developed!

Or

In the worst case scenario , mandatory inclusionary housing  can be a way of enriching developers and land owners by opening new opportunities for profit for them by building  market rate high rise highly profitable developments in upzoned “undervalued” neighborhoods, at the expense of displacement of families in need of housing , what’s called gentrification. Displacement follows, not only on the site of the new development, but secondary displacement also follows, where land in the newly developed parcels increases development prices in the surrounding neighborhood, putting some of it also out of reach both of its existing residents and of those under normal circumstances likely to move in but unable to at the new higher prices.  And the masters of the new developments can get away with it politically by raising the image of dong good through provision of a limited number of housing units to poorer people, some of whom might actually b those they themselves just displace,. or who might be useful for the rich to have nearby as nannies and cooks and chauffeurs and butlers. In both cases, there is a danger that, at the scale of the city, segregation may increase and, for lack of a comprehensive city-wide planning approach, the desired balance among uses, residential, commercial, manufacturing, public facilities, will be lost.

Even seemingly technical issues, like what % of Area Median Income defines households in need of “affordable“ housing, or what proportion on MIH units in a given development should  be market rate and what affordable, or seemingly procedural planning issues such as the strength of city-wide comprehensive planning and its relationship to community-based plans, and in what communities with what standards, can make the difference between the best case and the  worst case scenarios .

 

——————————–

[1] that inequalities in society work to the benefit of the least advantaged

[2] In fair housing law, it is not only acts of intentional discrimination that are banned, but also those having the adverse effect of discrimination.

Blog 66 Just Housing Draft


Blog #66 –Just Housing? –Public Housing’s Past, Present, and Potential Future

In three parts: First, an argument about public housing and the concept of justice , suggesting that public housing is part of a whole housing system, private and public, shaped both by forces internal to it and external pressures from other parts of the system, justice being thus far a minor criterion for it operations.
Second, a history of public housing’s roles in the past, suggesting it ranged from being a chain of oppression, to being a pacifier of social protest, to be a pawn of special interests, to being a beacon of hope for a more just world;
Third, some policy implications of the analysis, divided between immediate efforts to address internal weaknesses to broader transformative efforts to address its social role in society, to possibilities for system-changing efforts –from an oppressive chain to a beacon of hope.__

The paper derives from a presentation on The Future of Public Housing,” part of a series on “Housing for All,” at the University of British Columbia. My keynote was entitled: “Just Housing? ” with a question mark, and both its title and the tile of the series, gave rie to ambiguities that already open the door to my main points and led directly to my agent.

HOUSING FOR ALL: put public housing isn’t housing for all, and shouldn’t be; it’s for those who need it and don’t have it.. It must necessarily be at the expense of those who have more than they need. Not for all.—except in the longest view. Will be conflict: goal is not consensus, but justice

JUST HOUSING? Is housing just, and is it just housing that decide? Can you have jus t housing if it is embedded in an unjust society??

First, then, the argument:

1. Public housing is part of a much larger system of housing, production, distribution, management, financing, and regulation, and is subject to both internal and external constraints that any discussion of the future of public housing must consider both internal and external, not just the internal, in any discussion of the future;
2. Justice should be a major criterion in any such consideration. Public housing is important not judge as a means of providing shelter for the poor, but as a way of handling a major social institution and shaping fundamental social relationships among all sections of society. Justice requires not just alleviating poverty but reducing inequality, affecting what goes on at the top of the social and economic scale as well as what goes on at the bottom.
3. Therefore, conflict is to be expected, and consensus is not a feasible ultimate goal, in any measures dealing with public housing . Ad they will not only be conflicts about details and methods, will involve a wide array of vested interests outside of housing – both internal issues and external pressures, and will be fundamentally political more than technical.

To be clear, what we’re talking about: what’s unique about public housing? Two things:

1. It’s outside of the market, at least as to the fixing of rents, but
a. Construction still generally private, so developer lobbies, ca be public, WPA First Houses
b. Land purchased privately so costs market dependent. can be eminent domain, high tax
c. Management public, can be outsourced, to a non-profit, e.g. tenant corporation, which could be elected, or CLT model
d. Ownership public, so no profit motive, although efficiency concerns because tax supported, but not just subsidized non-profit, call that social housing. Non-profit involvement is also important, but is not the final solution; it remains with its priorities privately set, not democratically publicly established.
2. It’s based on social need, family size, income, health, existing housing. Has had other: wartime production workers, needed for displaced by urban renewal or public projects.

So certain conclusions flow from these essential characteristics of public housing —-

1. Its purpose is cannot be just housing as shelter, but just housing, housing that serves goals of social justice.
2. That means it can’t just deal with housing; it has to look at impact on jobs, discrimination, status, security culture, education
3. And Justice in housing involves looking at full range of housing system, rich as well as poor, gated communities as well as ghettos.
4. It further means it will always be conflictual: justice involves distributional issues, which means there will be winners and losers.
5. It will always involve relations of power; issues of planning, construction, design, programming, will be important , but not decisive.

Second, the history: If we look at its history, internationally, the results on the ground of these characteristics of public housing have varied:

1. Sometimes public housing has been among the losers: as a set of chains binding its resident to their prescribed place within the status quo, akin to a ghetto or a prison, functioning as an instrument of oppression; (Baltimore, sometimes New York City.)
Increasingly today, concentrations of crime, police surveillance, stigmatization indicator, a controlled slum
2. Sometimes as a pacifier, to prevent the very worst problems of homelessness and shelter, it could be worse remember, be quiet and seek small improvements
Bismarck, the New Deal
3. Almost always as a pawn, serving multiple interests , developers, land owners, , in fill, economic development , aesthetics, slum clearance, votes, ideology (government good, governments bad)
First Houses
4. But can be a threat to power also, because conjures up the image of what good housing can be, in a good society; it can be a beacon of hope and a spur to organized resistance, a radical utopia. In two ways:
a. As itself the basis for organization, a platform and site of action, a model community, a bubble utopia in practice. In day to day work. Or
(Vienna, The Bronx coops, Howard’s Garden Cities.)
b. As a model, an image of what a whole society might be organized to look like and provide, what the role of government should be. ideologically, theoretically: A beacon.
Utopian Communities, 60’s communes

With that history, what’s the future of public housing? How might its potential best be realized?
The answer, of course, is clear! What any economist will tell you:“ It Depends!” But on what? Well, on politics.

Not greater knowledge, better design, more sophisticated financing, more caring officials , better behaved applicants , fairer admissions or continued occupancy criteria – but, to put it plainly, on the distribution of power at the local and indeed higher levels of government and policy determination, on what politics in a democracy ought to be.

But, in today’s world, on who already has the power, already are the key actors: tax sensitive politicians, ideological politicians , developers, financiers up to hedge funds, private landlords, real estate agents/boards, employers, –and how others might be brought in as significant players, neighborhood merchants, ethnic groups , LGBT, residents, those in need of housing. On the ability to organize the politically unorganized and underrepresented..

Third, the Policy implications For the Future of Public Housing

A, Immediate policy implications.
1. Improvements possible. Knowledge, research, technical competence useful
• fair eviction proceedings,
• More efficient personal security, housing authority special police.
• better and more responsive management,
• Adequate funding for maintenance and repairs,
• Empowerment of residents and residents’ councils, for their knowledge, and support and pressure capabilities, to make actual policies bottom up.
• Hiring practices, including training of residents
• Provision of ancillary facilities and spaces for activities: health clinics, pre-school, recreation, meetings.

2. Some tough policy issues, needing research and thought, as in conferences like this
• Based on need, or good tenancy record, or family record?
• Mixed, set aside units for higher, (part from raising funding): for interaction? But less for very poor?
• Hire tenants, but social problems, less competence.
• Is inclusionary zoning for private housing a good idea as an alternate? With public housing management?
• Coalition building: with whom? middle class? Developers?
• B. Radical transformative possibilities. Defined as:
• Recognize conflict, willing to fight, not convince for consensus
• Talk about justice, inequality at the top, not just poverty at the bottom.
• Open a vista of even more, face up to the realities of capitalism and its weaknesses.

C. Systemic changes:
Fund public housing adequately. Fund distributionally, tax the rich, profits.
Decommodify land, and housing (up to mid-level?)
Empower residents of public housing, perhaps C.L.T. model, with legal authority.
A right to housing, globally recognized. 

Conclusion.

Four take-aways:
1. Public housing is part of a system, both a system of providing hosusing an a system of social and economic relations in the society as a whole: both an internal and an eternal system
2. Justice should be a major criterion for a public housing system and not just at the bottom, not just the alleviation of poverty, but also at the top, the reduction of inequality. They are inter-related, and both are needed.
3. There for conflict is to be expected, and power will be involved, and not only more knowledge and technical competence is needed, but also political organizing and democratic involvement.
4. Public housing can be an instrument , a chain, of oppression, a pacifier of social resistance, a pawn for special interests, or a beacon pointing to just housing in a just society.

Everything need not be done at once; not a revolution, but transformatively towards social justice beyond housing,
Public housing is today a pawn in the hands of often conflicting but powerful groups in our society
But there are also movements to turn it instead into a beacon exposing injustice and pointing the way to better
a future for public housing worth fighting for, well within public housing’s dna:
Public housing as a beacon illuminating the possibilities of a just society, not a pacifier, not a pawn in power plays.
And at all costs not a stick to beat the poor.

The motto might be: break the stick, discard the pacifier, capture the pawn, relight the beacon!

If you believe all that, , better gird your loins for the battles that are surely ahead, and I suspect better started in many places already . Indeed, under way from the beginning of public housing’s history.

But it’s a battle worth waging.

Blog #58b: From Civil Rights to Human Rights via Transformative Rights.


 

Blog #58b: From Civil Rights to Human Rights via Transformative Rights.

 

The issues raised by the discussion of utopias in Blog #58a: From Immediate Demands to Utopias via Transformative Demands, have a striking parallel in the discussion about rights, ranging from civil rights to human rights via transformative rights.

 

****

I.                 Rights: Human Rights and Civil Rights

 

“Rights” has many meanings, as in: ” human rights,” ” the right to the city,” “the rights of man,” “women’s rights’ or “minority rights.” When we speak of minority rights, we mean the rights of minority groups to be treated fairly and equally in matters in matters in which treatment should not vary by minority status, e.g. color of skin. What “fairness” and “equally” mean may be debatable, but what “rights” means is clear. It is a claim that the law, the existing judicial system, must see to it that the desired end is achieved, and if they do not do so, they should be changed so that they will. It is a critical, but not a radical or revolutionary, call.

A.    Human Rights

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson speaks of right that is self-evident: “the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”[3] The French revolution’s “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” and Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man” saw rights in a quite different sense: as a revolutionary change in the entire structure of society, certainly of the nation, as an ultimate goal, not one or a specific set of rights, but a claim to a system, to an independence, that would permit rights to be pursued, not within the existing, but within a new, society”Rights,” in the minority rights meaning of the term, is a claim for a change in legal standing within an existing system; in the French or revolutionary meaning, it is a goal for a movement of fundamental social change. . For The socialist Jaurès the French revolution’s “rights of man” “anticipated socialist utopianism, not legal internationalism.”[4]

 

B.    Civil Rights

Jefferson’s right, an inalienable human right, is clearly a right to change the system; it is, after all, in a revolutionary Declaration of Independence. Civil rights, historically, are rights within the system, rights in fact the system itself is called on to guarantee.

The point is more than an academic one. It came quite dramatically to fore again in the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960’s, when a significant part of the movement began to make it clear they wished, not simply to be included within the existing framework of laws and government, but within an entirely new one.

In Sam Moyn’s excellent story of the varing role of “rights” discussions over the course of history, the tension between civil rights and human rights formulations reflects somewhat the same difference in the meaning of rights, from immediate demands to broader goal statements. Human rights claims, in W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King are on the other hand more on the order of what Moyn calls “transformative utopianism.” Moyn also highlights the relationship between internal human rights efforts as going beyond more limited domestic and practical claims, as in Stokely Carmichael’s move from a United States-centered to an internationally-oriented effort, and Malcolm X’s vision of “human rights—but in the sense of collective liberation from imperial subordination.”[5] It is a movement between a critical and a radical or revolutionary meaning, between  change within and change of, the system, the underlying structures of of power that define how a society operates. It is a movement which depends on the historical possibilities of the particular moment.

C. Transformative Rights

While the right literature on rights offers much more material for examining the questions raised above than is possible here, the suggestion of linking internal political struggles around civil rights and international struggles around human rights, clarifying the implications of each for the other, as Sam Moyn ‘s work does, should have wider attention in social movements which often use the language of rights to formulate their claims. As with utopianism there is the danger that human rights is pushed into a limited consideration of what the United Nations of international law are willing to recognize and enforce, neglecting to examine what taking human rights seriously might mean for changes not only within the existing systems of international law but also for changes in the very meaning of “civil law” within national states. It is fertile ground for further constructive exploration. The concept of transformative rights might be useful.

 

[1] Significantly, it is a singular right that Jefferson cites, one big one, to a new country in the context, not multiple immediate if critical rights within existing national relationships.

[2] Moyn, op. cit., p, 40.

[3] Significantly, it is a singular right Jefferson cites, one big one, to a new country in the context, not multiple immediate if critical rights within existing national relationships.

[4] Moyn, op. cit., p, 40.

[5] See Samuel Moyn. 2010, The Last Utopia, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., pp, 104-106. Moyn does not generalize to the conclusion I suggest in the text, but focuses on the multiple ways “rights” have been political issues over the course of history, suggesting how their meaning has changed with their context, and I believe the dichotomous meanings referred to here are revealed in many instances.

Blog #58a: From Immediate Demands to Utopias via Transformative Demands.


Blog 58a: From Immediate Demands to Utopias via Transformative Demands.

The Occupy movement was frequently criticized for not making immediate and concrete programmatic demands. The movement challenging climate change and calling for society to become managed along ecological lines is sometimes charged with the same failure. The slogan, “Cities for people, Not for Profit,” and the Right to the City movement, are likewise often faulted in the same way, charged with being utopian, unrealistic, naïve. The tension between efforts to bring about changes within the system, to meet priority needs as a priority goal, or to change the system itself to deal with long-term causes and consequences, is a tension fraught with difficulties, both in theory and in practice. Examining the handling of utopias and utopian ideas , while on its face perhaps theoretical, can provide some illumination as to the practical alternatives for social movements as well.

I. Utopian Utopias and Non-Utopian Utopias

A. Utopian Utopias, “utopian” ideas.

“Utopia” and “utopian”: those are two quite different words, often used with quite different meanings and, if they are used without attention to the difference, they can have quite different, even contradictory, practical implications The discussions of utopia go far back in history, at least to the Greeks, recurs in the discussions of and within the Occupy movement, and is the source of on-going tensions in discussions of strategies of social change all over the world: are the goals of this movement or the assumptions of this program or that utopian, or is the spelling out of a vision of utopia now a mobilizing impetus for movements of social change? The focus on such questions was hot in the 1960’s, in the new left, in the anti-colonial struggles and movements for national liberation, in the peace movements. They perhaps came most sharply into focus in 1968, with Herbert Marcuse’s talk on The End of Utopia in Berlin[1] and in the signs displayed by the students on the streets of Paris that year: “Be Realistic; Demand the Impossible.”

Recognizing the differences in the two meanings, the positive meanings of “utopia” and “utopian” as ideally desirable and the negative meaning of the two terms as meaning “impossible” and “unattainable” leads to the question

“Is utopia still a utopian concept?”

Using utopia in the positive meaning and utopian in the negative.

Thus: “is an ideal society still unattainable? “

So we need to distinguish between two concepts of utopia: that of 1) a an imaginable but unattainable perfect future state, a utopian utopia, and that of a good, or a just, society, in which the principles of social justice would prevail, a just utopia seen as the goal of actual political social, and economic societal arrangements, a concrete, really attainable utopia: an attainable utopia, for short, as the word will be used here, “attainable” as opposed to “utopian.”   It was then argued that by the 1960’s there should be an end to the painting of an utopian utopia because an attainable utopia had become possible, and continuing to define it as utopian was conservative if not self-defeating.

B.    Attainable Utopias

In what sense could there be an attainable utopia? In 1967, it was said in Berlin

“Today any form of the concrete world, of human life, any transformation of the technical and natural environment is a possibility, and the locus of this possibility is historical. Today we have the capacity to turn the world into hell, and we are well on the way to doing so. We also have the capacity to turn it into the opposite of hell. This would mean the end of utopia, that is, the refutation of those ideas and theories that use the concept of utopia to denounce certain socio-historical possibilities. It can also be understood as the “end of history” in the very precise sense that the new possibilities for a human society and its environment can no longer be thought of as continuations of the old, nor even as existing in the same historical continuum with them. Rather, they presuppose a break with the historical continuum; they presuppose the qualitative difference between a free society and societies that are still unfree, which, according to Marx, makes all previous history only the prehistory of mankind.”[2]

There are other interpretations of the End of Utopia formulation, notably by Russell Jacoby and Sam Moyn, which however use the concept,[3] 20 some years after Herbert Marcuse used it, in a quite different way from his use. They consider it still as the exercise of picturing a perfect although unattainable world and pursuing it, and see the ending of that result as a defeat of the aspiration for a radical change in society.[4] Herbert Marcuse, I believe, would have agreed, but differentiated a utopian utopia from an attainable utopia, from the real possibility of making a close to perfect world no longer unattainable, no longer utopian as a unrealizable ideal, but a goal now possible of achievement.

The political implications of taking all utopias to be utopian are strong. If one wants to use utopia in that sense, it follows that striving for utopia, or even spending time thinking through and imagining what a utopia might be like, is a useless exercise. If, however, one wants to argue that today utopia is no longer a utopian, in the sense of unrealizable, vision, but rather one that can be a concrete goal of human (political) activity, what follows is rather an incitement to concrete political action. It was an optimistic vision, as opposed to Moyn’s implicit assumption that utopia and utopian are necessarily associated and unachievable concepts. But I argue that an attainable utopia today is both optimistic, in its presentation of a lofty goal that is achievable, although pessimistic in agreement with Jacoby and Moyn, that the effort to achieve it as an immediate goal seems quite remote, depending on how one reads history. But I argue that there is a new real historical possibility of the realization of an attainable utopia requires a change in policy and program, in which the realization of that possibility, while it cannot be seen as an immediate goal (pessimism), can yet inspire individual partial steps towards its realization that may, as they come together, still make ultimate success possible (optimistic).

Thus, today, implicitly to label all discussions of utopia as utopian is politically loaded, conservative, hostile to efforts for fundamental social change.

It would not always have been so. The End of Utopia argument, as the long quotation above suggests, is made in a specific historical context, and I would rather read Moyn and Jacoby as reading that historical context today as different from what it was in the 1960’s. If the historical context indeed does not support the contention that attainable utopias are today possible, if the “historical continuum” in which earlier discussion of utopias still continues unbroken, then indeed today all utopias really are utopian. The belief that there has been a fundamental historical change, some time after World War I and increasingly thereafter, in which technological development has advanced far enough to make a society of abundance, of plenty for all, a real physical possibility, is a belief that has substantial support, and seems, if one things about it, intuitively plausible: if all the waste that goes into production for war, for unsatisfying luxury consumption and satisfaction of inflated and “false” needs, for competition for status and conspicuous consumption, for growth for its own sake, for legal and illegal theft, were instead funneled to challenges into ending existing inequities, into production of the necessities for a decent life for all in a society that put justice above profit and power, could not abundance for all, a real utopia, be realized today, even though hardly foreseeable in any earlier historical period?

The point is simple: an attainable utopia, not “utopian” in the sense of “unrealizable,” is a possibility today more than it has ever been before in history.

C.    Critical Utopias.

But even in earlier historical periods, the criticism that talk of utopias was useless and irrelevant to positive social change is only partially correct. It is correct, for instance, if heaven is seen as a utopia to be achieved in the hereafter, not in the now, thus preaching submission and patience and tolerance of injustices that will be rewarded, not in this life, but after it. This idea of utopia explicitly confined to the bye and bye indeed justifies that comment in the opening quotation: they are conservative if they amount to

“the refutation of those ideas and theories that use the concept of utopia to denounce certain socio-historical possibilities.”

For this use the concept of utopia to denounce certain socio-historical possibilities is aspect of some historical discussions of utopia that have a most critical edge, and that conceivably still have, even if indeed history is still tilted against their concrete realization

For many, perhaps most, imaginings of utopias historically have not as their purpose the presentation of an ideal society to be achieved, but rather have been a criticism of the societies in which they are written. They were not arguments for the realization of a particular utopia, a particular new society differently structured and different motivated, but rather efforts to show how ludicrous existing arrangements were, how badly they required change. Whether that change was through reform or revolution, liberal or radical, was often not elucidated. One thinks of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, H. G. Wells A Modern Utopia, or Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. This use of utopias as critical was thus indeed utopian, in its unrealistic sense, but not, in its historical context, an argument against social change, but rather one for it. How far concrete utopias might in their day be realized was quite different from how that might be realized today. Their political position then was as critical of the existing societies as discussions of utopia can still be today, if their ultimate attainability is not rejected ab initio. The purpose of these critical utopias was very much the same, if upside down, from novels appropriately called dystopian—the opposite of utopian—by writers such as Jack London in The Iron Heel or George Orwell in 1984. Dystopias are the presentation of an imaginary world, not as likely to be achieved, but to expose how the existing one was deficient. Utopias did it by showing what the better alternatives could be imagined, dystopias by what worse alternatives might be imagined to They were not intended to be blueprints for a new society to be achieved. Both critical utopias and dystopias were critical calls to action, in fantasized forms, intended to influence actions required to be undertaken in their contemporary societies.

So one may speak of a utopian utopia, a critical utopia, and an attainable utopia: a utopian utopia conservative in its political implications, a critical utopia or dystopia critically reformist in its political implications, and an attainable utopia, radical in its ultimate political implications, each very much dependent on its historical context.

There remains, then, the question of whether the historical context today is still the same as that of the 1960’s, whether indeed the optimism of those days on the streets and universities around the world was justified, and if not, what the conclusion as to the utopianism of utopias is today. It is hard, in a time of economic instability, high unemployment, increasing inequality, environmental degradation, unaddressed climate change, war and campaign of bombing and attrition, strong right-wing and racist tendencies in even the most formally democratic countries, to visualize even the possibilities of an attainable utopia.[5] Martin Jay certainly felt, in 1999, that visualizing the concept, as in Herbert Marcuse’s essay, “now reads like a document of a long lost civilization,[6] Is there then, at least in the short term, any surviving political relevance to the concept of utopia?

D.    Utopian Communities as Models for Transformation.

The term “utopian community” is often used to describe planned communities built in the last two centuries, and Sam Moyn uses the term “transformative utopianism” to describe “minimalist, hardy utopia[s] that could survive in a harsh climate.”[7] His reference is to the idealism of some of the protests of the the 1960’s, but the term might also be used to describe the planned communities like or Brook Farm or New Harmony or Oneida in the United States, or, very recently, eco-villages or planned communities or utopian experimental socialist models. Many were limited to attempts to implement different models for the physical growth of a community, laying out town plans and land use arrangements in a critical direction, as the Garden City movement. One might call various efforts to approach efforts of fundamental change as partially utopian in a limited way, as in Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City movement and its spin-offs. And very down-to-earth reforms such as expansion of cooperative structures to broad sectors of the economy, worker-owned enterprises such as Gar Alperovitz espouses, have a touch of utopianism about them, if very much in Moyn’s sense of minimalist for harsh social climates. The issue of whether what is espoused represents change within the system or of the system is not always clear; the underlying hope is undoubtedly for both.

II. Transformative utopianism

Utopian, however, in almost all historical usages, carries with it the idea of complete change, a different society as a whole, as in its original use by Sir Thomas More and the subsequent thinkers discussed above. A “partial utopia” is really an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Striving for efforts at reform, by definition less than a complete or revolutionary change, can thus only properly be called “utopian” in the sense that they may prefigure one part of a utopia, on step towards complete change, part of a transition towards something more. Rather than call such efforts “utopian,” with its dominant usage as unrealistic, desirable but unattainable, does its transformative potential a disservice. There is a continuum in efforts of social change, ranging from small-scale, clearly piece-meal actions and ideas – “increase the amount of affordable housing till no one is homeless” – to large-scale goals, such as “provide housing on the basis of need rather than ability to pay.” It is stretching it to goal the former utopian,” but it may in fact be seen, and advanced, as part of efforts to attain the latter, maybe a utopian housing system, a partial utopia. I think it would be more effective to speak of such a partial, or even sectoral, goal as transformative utopianism.[8]

And in this more limited meaning, but still at the forward edge of the politically relevant, I believe pressing the case for a long-range and comprehensive perspective of social change, efforts to work out the outlines of an attainable utopia, of a critical utopia, of a transformative utopia, can still play an important and positive role. Immediate and concrete programmatic demands for reforms need such utopian perspective today if they are to have a lasting impact tomorrow. The trick is formulating and fighting for demands that both secure immediate benefits but raise the possibilities of broader social transformation; demands that address the narrow immediate but open to vista to the whole, demands both for change within the system and change of the system.

[1] lecture delivered at the Free University of West Berlin in July 1967. Reprinted in                                   vol   of

[2] Herbert Marcuse, The End of Utopia, First Published: in Psychoanalyse und Politik; lecture delivered at the Free University of West Berlin in July 1967, included in Herbert Marcuse, Marxism, Revolution and Utopia, ed. Douglas Kellner, Routledge, 29014, also available at www.marcuse.org/herbert/ and at ttps://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/marcuse/works/1967/end-utopia.htm

[3] Samuel Moyn, 2010, The Last Utopia: Human Right in History, Cambridge, Mass, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Russell Jacoby, 2,000. The End of Utopia Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy. Basic Books.

[4] For a short overview of other uses of utopias, see Marcuse, Peter. “Utopias and Dystopias in Brecht (with a side glance at Herbert Marcuse)” in Silberman, Marc, and Florian Vassen, ed., 2004. Mahagonny.com The Brecht Yearbook 29, The International Brecht society: University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 23-30., available http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi-bin/German/German-idx?type=turn&entity=German.BrechtYearbook029.p0042&id=German.BrechtYearbook029&isize=M

[5] Herb Gans has tried to do so, in a thoughtful way, in Imagining America in 2033: How the Country Put Itself Together After Bush University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2009. But it has not attracted the widespread attention it deserves

[6] Review in London Review of Books, “The Trouble with Nowhere” June 1, 2000, p. 23.

[7] Op. cit. pp. 119, 120.

[8] For more on the concept of transformation, see my Blog #30, Transformative Proposals in Nine Areas, at pmarcuse.wordpress.com.